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Obvious mistakes aren't difficult to spot. Is the inhabitable-square-footage figure correct? Does the assessment say your home has four bedrooms when it has only three? But you also should consider comparing the assessment with a recent appraisal of your property. If you don't have one, hire an appraiser for a new evaluation.
Make sure that any property changes, particularly those that would negatively affect the value of your home, are part of the assessment. For example, maybe a bridge has gone out near your home, making your house less accessible (and less valuable).
Don't forget any modifications you've made. If you've torn down a garage to increase garden space, your home's value likely would decrease.
Look closely at your neighborsThe other way to challenge an assessment is to see how your home stacks up to comparable houses in your neighborhood. "Comparable" means homes of the same size, age and general location.
For example, Straus lives in a 550-home subdivision in Texas. But even within the subdivision, there are differences that affect value. Homes near a busy road in the community are valued less than those abutting a quiet creek.
You can find information on comparable homes and their worth at the assessor's office, or start with property-value sites like Zillow.com, Domania.com and Trulia.com. If you don't want to do the legwork yourself, hire a Realtor or an appraiser to collect the data. Straus recommends getting comparisons on five to 10 homes.Once you have your comparative data, go over the figures and decide whether you have a case. If you think your assessment is too high, contact your assessor's office and try to arrange a one-on-one, informal meeting. Sometimes simply pointing out the facts can be enough for the assessor to lower an assessment.
Straus says 95% of his commercial cases are settled informally without the need of a hearing. Just be aware that when you meet with your assessor, it's a negotiation. You may still end up with a higher valuation than you'd like, but one that is lower than the assessor's original appraisal.
Prepare to protestIf the assessor won't meet with you (and some counties won't permit informal meetings), or if you meet but fail to reach an agreement, the next step is to protest the assessment.
Ask the assessor about the procedures and deadlines for filing a protest. Follow the guidelines to the letter to ensure that your appeal isn't thrown out on a technicality.
Before your hearing, gather all of your evidence and put it in order. For example, you may want to collect photos of comparable properties or put the market data into a spreadsheet that makes it easy for the hearing officials to see the basis of your argument. Your presentation doesn't have to be as polished as Perry Mason's, but being organized will help you make the strongest possible case.
Consider sitting in on somebody else's hearing before your appeals date. You'll see how the board operates. You can also get a sense of which arguments do and don't work.
What if the board doesn't rule in your favor, despite your compelling presentation? You can go to court, but in most cases it will cost you more than the amount of tax money you might save. But you may not need to take such drastic action. Many states have a state appeals board, Straus says, where you can take your case if the local panel rejects your petition.
Just remember to stay composed and professional throughout the process.
"Calling them SOBs is not a good negotiation tactic," Straus says. "The appeal hearing is an emotional thing because it goes straight to your wallet, but you have to stay calm."
Published June 13, 2007